Upside Down and Open Hearted | D’varim HaMakom: The JOFEE Fellows Blog

by Emily Glick, Teva, Hazon, Falls Village, CT

Parashat Shoftim

Editor’s Note: Welcome to D’varim HaMakom: The JOFEE Fellows Blog! Most weeks throughout the year, you’ll be hearing from the JOFEE Fellows: reflections on their experiences, successful programs they’ve planned and implemented, gleanings from the field, and connections to the weekly Torah portion and what they’ve learned from their experiences with place in their host communities for the year. Be sure to check back weekly! 

P.S. Interested in being or hosting a JOFEE Fellow? Applications for cohort two are now open for both prospective fellows and prospective host institutions! 

Topsy Turvy Bus Educator Frances Lasday pumps used veggie oil | photo credit: Emily Glick
Bal Taschit – do not waste: Topsy Turvy Bus Educator Frances Lasday pumps used (and pre-filtered!) veggie oil donated by Western Michigan University | Photo: Emily Glick

My debut expedition as Teva’s first JOFEE Fellow began in a transformational grease machine / holy mobile space most commonly known to the greater world as the Topsy Turvy Bus. Having just completed a three-week JOFEE Fellowship orientation and training intensive seminar, I was leading our seven-week Mayim l’Mayim themed bus tour fueled on used cooking oil, holy vibes, and Torah – not to mention the passion of our 5 radiantly unique bus educators, all of whom brought skills and essential senses of humor that our tour would not have succeeded without.

Our team performed in camp talent shows; saw shooting stars; wrote songs about mycelium; learned that Michigan mosquitoes are a particular breed of awful; wrote curriculum that Miriam the Prophetess would be proud of; improvised (often) when that curriculum didn’t work out as planned; mikveh-ed in a Great Lake; and taught over a thousand children the Water Cycle Boogie.

Itai Gal and Jacob Leeser help a student make a pedal-powered fruit smoothie | Emily Glick
Bus educators Yaakov Leeser (left) and Itai Gal help a student make a pedal-powered fruit smoothie | Photo: Emily Glick

As lead educator, I worked to incorporate sage advice on the workings of our greasy beast from generations of educators cum bio-diesel bus-mechanics who drove and occupied the bus in summers past. They taught me that today is always a good day to have a good day, that everywhere you go you are the coolest, and – most importantly – to never miss bridge height clearance signage.

Long nights of processing current environmental and social issues turned into 100 degree days of brainstorming what future worlds could look like with 6 year olds. I quickly grew used to the boggled faces that turned our way from sidewalks and parallel traffic lanes, and explored increasingly creative ways to answer the question: “but how does your bus run on Torah?”

The Topsy Turvy Team visits JOFEE Fellowship host site Pushing the Envelope Farm in Geneva, IL | Shani Mink
The Topsy Turvy Team visits JOFEE Fellowship host site Pushing the Envelope Farm in Geneva, IL | Photo: Shani Mink

The answer to this question – “How does your bus run on Torah?” – was the true fuel behind my adventures this summer. Coincidentally (or maybe not) there is no better Parsha than this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, to explain the fuel behind our bus. Shoftim contains two powerful JOFEE values related to justice and community: opening with “you shall not judge unfairly,” Shoftim directs us to open our hearts to our neighbors without undue judgement; the famous quote, “Justice, Justice, You Shall Pursue” appears shortly after. With these words, our tradition calls attention to the pursuit of both justice and open-hearted dialogue and engagement as eternal religious obligations, deeply rooted into what it means to be a Jewish person.

Soon thereafter, Shoftim lays out etiquette for the Israelites in war-time. Alongside refraining from violence immediately after a wedding or before offering a peace treaty, the Jewish people are commanded to not destroy something of value. Specifically, this is noted in the prohibition against cutting down fruit bearing trees during war. It is from this commandment that the legendary and powerful Jewish value of Bal Tashchit, do not waste, is derived. Bal Tashchit is a key ethic taught to Teva students of all ages, and resonates particularly strongly in the context of our bus tour. Whether water, fuel, or other resources, the act of wasting – of cutting down literal and metaphorical fruit-bearing trees whether in times of war or times of peace – undercuts the future both for ourselves and for those whom we may, in the present, oppose.

As a mobile community of educators and young Jewish activists, our bus team frequently discussed the application of these Torah-based morals and values related to waste, openness, and justice. In what ways were we giving kavod – respecting and honoring – the values elaborated in Shoftim . . . and in what ways were we not? We were living in Jewish community, crossing state lines in a carbon neutral upside down bus, and cooking our beans and rice off energy from our solar panel. It was easy to say, with confidence, that our bus runs on Torah because of these values that we held. And we were teaching these values to hundreds of kids in new cities every day.

Bus educator Molly Kulwin displays freshly worm-composted soil amendment from the bus's vermicompost bin | Emily Glick
Bus educator Molly Kulwin displays freshly worm-composted soil amendment from the bus’ vermicompost bin | Photo: Emily Glick

However, much continues to happen outside the walls of of our magical tin box. I wondered about our role in the communities past our own, just outside the places we visited. I wondered if our message and our programs were accessible to children of all different families, classes, and racial backgrounds. As reads Hazon’s theme quote from Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, also emblazened on the side of our bus, “The Torah is a commentary on the world, and the world is a commentary on Torah.” The Torah certainly lent wisdom – and fuel – to our bus expedition. What Torah did we learn from the places and communities through which we journeyed? And how do we incorporate that Torah into our work as JOFEE educators?

We have just rolled into the month of Elul, a time of deep personal reflection as we prepare for the major holidays of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot. Elul is a great time for all of us to check in with the ways we are upholding our Jewish values of justice and openness – to reflect on how we show up for ourselves, how we make ourselves open to others, how to best utilize our resources, and how to use Torah as the fuel for justice in all our communities as we move through this topsy turvy journey called life.  

View from the Back | Emily Glick
View from the Back | Photo: Emily Glick

Emily Glick is one of Hazon’s JOFEE Fellows, working with our Teva programs. Prior to her life in Teva and JOFEE, Emily studied Social Thought & Political Economy at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. See her full bio here.

Read more from D’varim HaMakom: The JOFEE Fellows Blog!